Katherine Boehret

A Cellphone With ‘Talking’ Emails

Every so often, a technology company sticks its neck out and creates a product beyond its repertoire. Dell Inc., known for its computers, began offering television sets four years ago. In 1998, printing titan Hewlett-Packard Co. started applying its imaging expertise to digital cameras. And when Apple Inc. introduced the iPod in 2001, the computer company strayed from its historic path.

This week, I tested the H-P iPAQ 510 Voice Messenger from Hewlett-Packard, H-P’s first real cellphone and a big name for a diminutive product that is due out in April or May for around $300 to $350. Attempts to add phones to H-P iPAQs in the past usually resulted in clumsy interfaces, giving the feeling of a phone crammed into a data device.

The H-P iPAQ 510 Voice Messenger from Hewlett-Packard.

The H-P iPAQ 510 Voice Messenger from Hewlett-Packard.

This new 510, however, comes across as the opposite: a gadget with smart-phone capabilities that is limited by its small size and lack of useful physical features, many of which are included on other smart phones. H-P has tried to compensate by using a built-in voice-recognition system that enables email dictation and reads emails aloud, but this is no substitute for a keyboard. Overall, the product is very disappointing.

Emails you dictate are sent as audio attachments, a technique that doesn’t allow the recipient to print the emails, save them as text, or copy and paste the message contents into other emails or documents. The robotic voice that reads emails you receive is bad. And using voice commands to enable the phone’s functions brings forth separate frustrations.

The iPAQ 510 is smarter than it looks: It runs on the new Windows Mobile 6.0 and can use Wi-Fi to provide a notably fast network connection. However, as if to drive home its phone functionality, the 510 disguises its smart-phone brains under the shell of a cute, stylish, basic cellphone. Its edges and keypad are black and the rest of the phone is gray with a handy 1.3-megapixel camera on the back side.

This gadget’s emphasis on looks comes at a price: It relies solely on its numeric keypad rather than a full physical or virtual keyboard, its relatively small two-inch screen doesn’t have touch capabilities and it doesn’t use a built-in scroll wheel or track ball for fast navigation.

So what’s the point? H-P hopes you’ll forget about this device’s faults when you use its Voice Commander feature to help you speak your way through navigating, composing emails and even listening as emails are read aloud.

But hear this: Even though Voice Commander offers over 20 different commands, it still suffers from the same problems as all voice-operated devices. You can’t use it in a noisy place, tough names (like my last name, for one) are often misheard and voice recognition still takes longer than pressing buttons.

The two email-related voice commands are theoretically the most useful, letting you dictate audio emails into the phone and directing Voice Commander to read emails aloud. But dictated email that you send isn’t converted into text, as one might hope. Instead, it is sent as an attached WAV file, inconveniently forcing your recipient to first open an attachment and then play your email aloud. And like all audio files, this email attachment isn’t as versatile as text, which can be printed, copied, or saved as a separate document.

What’s more, Voice Commander’s email dictation and read-aloud features work only with a Microsoft Exchange email address. So, if you’re using a Google Gmail or Yahoo email account, for example, you’re still stuck using the phone’s numeric keypad to write out messages.

The H-P iPAQ 510 Voice Messenger has a few upsides. It runs on the new and slightly improved version of Microsoft’s mobile software. It can easily hop onto any nearby Wi-Fi network, which worked quickly and efficiently in my tests. And H-P boasts that its battery will last for 6½ hours of talk time, about an hour longer than the closest competitor’s estimate.

But these good qualities are overshadowed by the 510’s poor design. I dozed off while holding my thumb on the “down” directional key to skim through lists of emails — it took much longer than using a BlackBerry scroll wheel or a Palm Treo touch screen. For certain Voice Commander functions, I had to repeat my command twice and then confirm that my command was correctly heard; more than once I gave a command that was entirely misunderstood.

I used many features of the iPAQ 510, focusing on Voice Commander to see if it made a significant difference in the product. Unless you have your phone’s earpiece attached, Voice Commander automatically barks, “Say a command,” through the phone’s speaker. I spoke a command by choosing from the on-screen list of statements, such as, “Call at ,” for which I could say, “Call Katie Boehret at work.” Voice Command repeated my choice, asked me to confirm that it was about to do the right thing, and proceeded.

But a lot of basic cellphones already have a voice dialing feature built in. So I focused especially on creating audio emails, speaking my email into the phone just as one might if recording a voice reminder. When I finished, the system played my voice email back, asked me to confirm that I wanted it sent, and emailed the message.

Voice Commander will also read emails and SMS text messages out loud. By opening Voice Commander and saying, “Read email” or “Read SMS,” unread emails or text messages were read aloud by a robotic female voice that was lifeless, barely understandable in some cases, and nowhere near as warm as the voice I heard last week in an Audi’s car GPS system. I responded to emails by dictating audio replies; you can’t use Voice Commander to dictate SMS messages.

I also used Voice Commander to find contacts, start applications, open a window for composing a new text email or listen to new appointments on my phone’s calendar.

The H-P iPAQ 510 Voice Messenger offers a way to use the phone for Internet calling, but the setup for this is so complicated that it requires help from your geeky cousin or an IT department.

All in all, this new venture from H-P is littered with shortcomings, mostly due to an emphasis on beauty over brains. The iPAQ 510 is powerful and fast, especially when using a nearby Wi-Fi network. But if you can’t easily navigate and must rely on a lackluster voice-recognition system, these features are dead in the water. H-P has nowhere to go but up from here.

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